Quebec separatists are running out of time.
The ruling Parti Quebecois was trounced in yesterday’s election, garnering its lowest support in 44 years as voters in the French-speaking province grow increasingly tired of the party’s push to separate from the rest of Canada.
The defeat was so decisive that Premier Pauline Marois lost her seat in the Quebec City region, as the party won just 30 districts and received 25 percent of the popular vote, the least since its inaugural campaign in 1970.
This is the fourth time in the past five elections the separatists have failed to break beyond 35 percent of the popular vote in a steady erosion of support that reflects dwindling interest from older Quebeckers to pursue the cause and the party’s inability to resonate with younger voters.
“Right now what is happening is sovereigntists are dying,” said Claire Durand, a sociologist who has studied the evolution of support for sovereignty, and “there is no renewal for support for sovereignty among the new generation.”
The Liberal Party led by Philippe Couillard won the election with a clear majority of seats in the provincial legislature, taking about 70 of 125 districts with 42 percent of the popular vote, according to Elections Quebec. The vote comes less than two years after the Liberals were removed from power amid a corruption scandal.
Marois’s run as Quebec’s first female premier lasted just 18 months after her Parti Quebecois returned to power in 2012 elections with a minority in the legislature, ending nine years of rule by the federalist Liberals. She stepped down as leader yesterday.
“The loss saddens me as much as you, if not more,” Marois told supporters last night at a downtown Montreal hotel. “We had so much to offer for Quebeckers.”
Just before taking the stage, the audience began to chant: “We want a country.”
Marois, 65, began the campaign March 5 with a promise to implement a “Charter of Values”, which would ban the wearing of religious dress and headgear by state employees such as doctors and teachers. Polls at the start of the campaign indicated the separatists were favored to win, and were within striking distance of a majority.
That advantage disappeared after she recruited as a candidate Pierre Karl Peladeau, the former head of Quebecor Inc., the province’s largest media company. Peladeau’s vow to fulfill a dream to make Quebec independent focused the campaign on sovereignty and sparked Marois’ decline, showing that most Quebeckers aren’t ready for another referendum on separation, and are more concerned about the economy and health care.
Voters “decided they wouldn’t go ahead with the government that would promote sovereignty and the idea of another referendum,” Daniel Turp, a former lawmaker for the party who now teaches law at the Universite de Montreal, said in a telephone interview.
Quebec has held two plebiscites on splitting from Canada -- in 1980 and 1995 -- under previous Parti Quebecois majority governments. The separatists lost both votes, though only by a wafer-thin margin the second time.
Both times, the separatists had the backing of a majority of young voters. In a report published March 19, Durand shows that in 1979 and 1995, more than 63 percent of French-speakers between the ages of 18 and 34 backed sovereignty. Support for the cause today is less than 40 percent among voters in that age group.
“The results clearly demonstrate that Quebeckers have rejected the idea of a referendum and want a government that will be focused on the economy and job creation,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement.
Many older Quebeckers who were once sovereigntists are also giving up on the idea of splitting from Canada, Durand’s data show. There is no age cohort with more than 45 percent support for sovereignty.
“People do not necessarily remain sovereigntist all their lives,” said Durand, of the Universite de Montreal.
For many young Quebeckers, the constitutional battles in Canada that helped drive support for independence are also things of the past. English Canada’s rejection in 1992 of constitutional reform in a nationwide plebiscite that would have given Quebec more power was the trigger for the province’s referendum in 1995, which the separatists lost by a margin of 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent.
The constitutional crises are “ancient history for those of my generation,” said Alexandre Tremblay, a law student at the Universite de Montreal. “No meaningful conflict exists.”
The separatists won their highest share of the vote in 1981 elections, when they received 49 percent of ballots, and won more than 40 percent of the vote twice in the 1990s.
Quebec has bucked the international trend on referendums. Of the 50 votes worldwide since World War II, 27 have been in favor of secession.
Scotland is next in line with a referendum on Sept. 18 on whether to stay in the U.K. While polls show more Scots want to retain the 307-year-old U.K. than leave it, they also consistently show enough voters remain undecided to sway the referendum. Panelbase found 41 percent in favor of Scottish independence, with 46 percent of respondents planning to vote against and 14 percent undecided, according to results on the pollster’s website.
To be sure, support for sovereignty is still at about 40 percent in Quebec and will continue to be a lasting part of the political debate in the province, said Harold Chorney of Concordia University. While support for the Parti Quebecois has trailed off over the past decade, part of that backing has moved to the left-leaning Quebec Solidaire, which also backs an independent Quebec.
“Calling for the end of sovereignty is always premature,” said Chorney.
The poor result for the Parti Quebecois also reflects campaign moves that undermined the party’s support from some of its leftist voters and heightened concern about a referendum, said Alain Gagnon, a political science professor at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal.
Peladeau’s entry into the campaign both fueled the debate over a referendum and alienated the party’s traditional union supporters. Peladeau oversaw several labor disputes in his time as head of Quebecor.
“With such a weak score, the PQ can count itself lucky that it managed to elect so many legislators,” Gagnon said. “The PQ strayed from its electoral base, from its hard core, and it paid the price.”
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